Holding Your Breath for Wi-Fi 6E? Here’s All You Need to Know!

A bunch of cool TP Link and Asus routers
Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech Even the latest high-end Wi-Fi 6 routers don’t support Wi-Fi 6E.

You might have heard of Wi-Fi 6E — I mentioned it briefly in this piece about Wi-Fi 6 as a whole. This post focuses on the details of this new frequency band and answers questions I received from readers in the past couple of months.

So, yes, you’ll learn all that matters about this new Wi-Fi standard here. And I’ll update this post when more information becomes available.

What is the deal with Wi-Fi 6E?

In a nutshell, Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6 that operates in the new 6 GHz frequency band, instead of the traditional 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.

Other than that, it has all the characteristics of Wi-Fi 6, including OFDMA and Target Wake Time (TWT). The speed caps remain too. You’ll get 600 Mbps per stream via an 80 MHz channel, or 1200 Mbps via a 160 MHz channel.

So then why do we even need it, you might wonder.

Why do we need 6E?

We don’t. We want it.

To deliver its top speeds, Wi-Fi 6 needs to operate in the 160 MHz, or at least 80 MHz, channel width. There’s only so much space in the 5 GHz spectrum. We only get a couple of 160MHz channels out of it — only two available in the U.S. to be exact — and they all encompass the space of narrower (40 MHz and 20 MHz) channels.

Since there are a ton of existing older Wi-Fi clients that only use 40 MHz, or 20 MHz channels, all home networks have to struggle between compatibility and performance.

Wi Fi Channels
Dong Ngo Note how wide a 160 MHz channel is compared with others.

Wi-Fi 6E deals with this spectrum shortage by using an entire frequency band for itself, opening its hardware to seven new 160 MHz channels, or fourteen 80 MHz channels. As a result, Wi-Fi 6E devices will be able to operate freely without the need to accommodate older Wi-Fi standards.

To understand this concept, imagine if a Wi-Fi band is a freeway, then channels are lanes, and we have this crude analogy: The 2.4 GHz includes only small lanes for bikes; the 5 GHz uses wider lanes for cars, buses, and trucks, and the 6GHz (Wi-Fi 6E) only has special tracks for a high-speed rail system.

And that brings us to the main shortcoming of Wi-Fi 6E.

Wi-Fi 6E vs. Wi-Fi 6: New hardware required

To use the new 6 GHz band, you’ll need a new broadcaster (a router) and clients (phones, laptops, etc.) that support it. It’s similar to the fact that you can’t drive a car, or ride a bike, on rail tracks. So none of the existing Wi-Fi equipment, including the latest Wi-Fi 6 routers, will work with this band.

(Initially, it was rumored that some new Wi-Fi 6 routers already have Wi-Fi 6E-ready hardware, which can be activated via firmware updates. However, this seems more and more unlikely as time goes by.)

This shortcoming is the same as the move from a single band (2.4 GHz) to dual-band (2.4 GHz + 5 GHz) that took place back when Wi-Fi 4 debuted in 2009.

A new type of tri-band equipment

Similar to the dual-band case, for backward compatibility, you can expect any Wi-Fi 6E-capable router to also have a 5 GHz band, and likely a 2.4 GHz band, built-in. In other words, it will be a tri-band router.

Yes, we have existing tri-band broadcasters — like the Asus GT-AX11000, Netgear RAX200, or TP-Link AX11000 — but they all have one 2.4 GHz band and two 5 GHz bands, mostly to address the bandwidth issue.

Come to think about it, chances are you’ll soon find quad-band routers, those like the ones mentioned above that also have a 6 GHz band.

Since a Wi-Fi connection takes place in a single band at a time, so far, we’ve only needed dual-band (2.4 GHz + 5 GHz) on the side of clients. However, with the addition of the 6 GHz band, future Wi-Fi receivers will also be tri-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 6 GHz).

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That’s because, for 6 GHz band to be successfully adopted, networking vendors need to keep devices compatible, regardless of the Wi-Fi frequencies being available at any given time. And incorporating multiple bands within the hardware is the only way to achieve that.

Wi-Fi 6E vs. other Wi-Fi standards

Does 6E have other shortcomings?

Yes. And shorter range sure is one of them.

In the world of radio broadcasting, higher frequencies always mean shorter ranges. FM and AM radio stations broadcast in MHz frequencies, much lower than Wi-Fi.

The 5GHz band clearly has a shorter range than that of the 2.4GHz one. So, the 6 GHz band’s will be behind that of the 5 GHz band, though it’s not clear by how much. But the shorter range means it’s probably not going to be a good band to work as the backhaul in a mesh system.

Another obvious shortcoming is the cost. Tri-band and quad-band hardware require more materials and sure will be more expensive. And, again, keep in mind you need both broadcasters and clients of the same standard to enjoy Wi-Fi 6E.

When will I see real Wi-Fi 6E hardware?

The Wi-Fi Alliance first introduced Wi-Fi 6E in early 2020. Soon after, in late April, FCC approved the use of 1.2 GHz worth of spectrum, of which 6 GHz Wi-Fi got a significant chunk.

That said, you can expect Wi-Fi 6E-capable routers from major networking vendors as early as the last part of 2020. Both Asus and Netgear have told me they were planning on releasing their first 6 GHz products later this year.

On the client-side, however, you will likely have to wait much longer, till the next releases of mainstream smartphones and laptops. So the earliest time you can have a real-world Wi-Fi 6E connection might be by the second half of 2021.

And then, you probably can also upgrade existing computers via adapters, similar to the case of Wi-Fi 6.



The takeaway

There you have it. Wi-Fi 6E is indeed around the corner.

You’ll soon hear a lot of rosy things about this standard. The new 6 GHz band is a great marketing tool — who wouldn’t want faster Wi-Fi?

Networking vendors will jump on the chance and mention all sorts of snazzy references, like how Wi-Fi 6E is great for 8K video, VR, 5G, low-latency, gaming, and so on. Some of that might be true, but most will be just hype and exaggeration.

The truth is we won’t know how Wi-Fi 6E pans out till it’s out. For now, one thing is for sure, you won’t be able to use Wi-Fi 6E with any existing devices. And that’s a huge downer.

When it comes to Wi-Fi, it’s always getting connected at the time of need, and not having the latest and greatest, that matters. And for the former, the existing 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands will do for a long time.

So don’t hold your breath and wait for Wi-Fi 6E, go ahead and get the equipment that serves your needs today. It’s always a good idea to give a new standard some time to fully mature before upgrading to it anyway.

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About the Author: Dong Ngo

Hello! My name is Dong Ngo. Technology is my passion, and I do know it. | Follow me on Twitter, or Facebook!

9 Comments

  1. Many current wifi6 chipsets are capable for 6GHz, that’s where the rumors came from, but they forgot one thing, does the FEM (or PA/LNA) in your routers support 6GHz? If no, that means NO.

  2. Great info Dong thank youi! I think it’s safe to say I will follow my common practice of giving technology time to mature. By the time we have stable and improved firmware it takes pretty much almost a year. Look at the recent high end wifi 6 routers. Now as of May netgear and asus both have released some nice firmware updates on improving their routers and adding features. Once we seen wifi 6e routers it would probably be a good idea to wait another year to see if even much hardware is out there to support it. All we know is that supporting hardware always takes so long to catch up. I mean we don’t even have much wifi 6 capable hardware out even today so it makes sense to wait. I am not holding my breath 🙂

  3. Thank you for the information. If I was looking to upgrade to mesh network,

    Setup: 3600 sq ft 3 level house, r8000, wired bridge r7000 and extender. All on different floors, have dead spot issues, low signal. I do good amount of gaming, streaming, alot of wired and wireless devices, IOT with this information should I:

    Get best bang for your buck mesh (maybe wifi5 or wifi6) thinking that nighthawk small boxes. And upgrade everything to 6e in a year or 2.

    Just stick with what I have now and use custom firmware to adjust and go with 6E when available

    Is there any reason/advantage to get high end router and getting 6E 2nd router/satellites

    Thank you for any feedback

  4. Many current WiFi 6 routers are based off the Broadcom BCM6755 and BCM43684 radios – for example the Asus ZenWiFi XT8.The BCM6755 SoC spec page (https://www.broadcom.com/products/wireless/wireless-lan-infrastructure/bcm6755) seems to indicate support for WiFi 6E, “Expanded 6 GHz frequency coverage including spectrum up to 7125 MHz expected to become available under new regulatory rules.” Have any manufactuters said whether they would provide WiFi 6E support through a firmware update? It seems like the hardware would support it.

    I understand the perdictiment this puts manufacturers in, however I hope they’ll at least consider support through a firmware update. I’d even be open to a paid-for-license upgrade model where I pay a nominal fee to unlock WiFi 6E support.

    Anyways, have you heard anything in this regard?

    1. Yeap, B. That was my hope and initially, Asus kinda hinted that could be the case. Later on, though, they said it was a no no. My guess is the chips were released way before FCC approved the spectrum so they might not have had the correct specs. As for right now, vendors are quite firm on new hardware. But that might change, though unlikely. But I sure will update this post as I learn more.

  5. I think the chart is potentially confusing since wifi6 uses 80/160mhz interchangeably based on the tier of hardware. AX1500/1800 Broadcom solutions for example have no access to 160mhz channels since the SoC doesn’t support it. The same case can be argued for the few wifi5 clients with 160mhz support.

    1×1 wifi6 is 600mbps on 1024-QAM(native) with 80mhz channels. 1200mbps with 160mhz
    1×1 wifi5 is 433mbps on 256-QAM(native)with 80mhz channels. 866.7mbps with 160mhz

    Just looks and potentially would indicate a bigger jump than it is I guess? Especially considering the limited channels on 5G and required DFS support.

    6E would have the valid argument if ratified to support 160mhz as a minimum spec, but I haven’t looked into that. Channel support isn’t an issue here, though.. 😀

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